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Can poor people be protected by global warming laws?

May 29, 2009 |  2:50 pm

Oil Heat waves, droughts and floods affect poor people disproportionately, according to a new report that recommends legislation to alleviate the impact as the climate warms.

African Americans living in Los Angeles have a projected heat-wave mortality rate that is nearly twice that of other Los Angeles residents, according to researchers from the University of Southern California and the University of California Berkeley who focused on the growing field of "environmental justice." And Latinos are the primary population in many neighborhoods and regions, including Los Angeles and the San Joaquin Valley, that have the worst air quality in the nation.

The report, "The Climate Gap, Inequalities in how Climate Change hurts Americans and How to Close the Gap" comes as the California Legislature and the U.S. Congress are grappling with how to design systems to control greenhouse gases that trap heat in the atmosphere. And how they are designed will have a major impact on low-income neighborhoods located near refineries, power plants and other industrial facilities that also spew unhealthful conventional pollutants.

"People of color will be hurt the most -- unless elected officials and other policymakers intervene," said Rachel Morello-Frosch, a UC Berkeley researcher.

Next week, the California Assembly is expected to take up a bill, AB 1404, that would drastically limit the amount of greenhouse gases that polluters could offset by paying emitters in other regions to cut their gases. Under loose guidelines adopted by the California Air Resources Board under the state's landmark global warming law, up to 49% of greenhouse gas pollution could be reduced through offsets such as planting trees or capturing landfill gases.

But  AB 1404, introduced by Assembly members Kevin De Leon (D-Los Angeles) and Manuel Perez (D-Coachella), would limit offsets to 10% and charge fees to fund careful verification of their integrity. "The big loophole in California’s otherwise exemplary global warming program would allow polluters to buy “offsets” — credits that polluters can buy for emission reductions elsewhere as a substitute for making reductions themselves, "said Erin Rogers of the Union of Concerned Scientists, an advocacy group. "California’s big global warming polluters should invest in local solutions instead of buying offsets and continuing to pollute as usual."

More than 60 California public health groups and labor unions  -- who want to maintain green jobs in the state rather than allow offsets to occur outside California -- support the legislation.

But it is opposed by industrial groups who want flexibility in meeting greenhouse gas targets. "An arbitrary limit..would result in higher costs for energy and infrastructure providers that would be passed along to state and local governments," according to a letter to legislators from the Western States Petroleum Assn., the California Chamber of Commerce and other business groups.

A battle is looming in Congress over whether offsets to federal limits on greenhouse gases are overly broad. The principal legislation, sponsored by Reps. Henry Waxman (D-Beverly HIlls) and Edward Markey (D-Mass.) would allow U.S. industries to offset up to 2 billion metric tons of gases per year, and a majority of the offsets could come from projects outside the U.S.

The Climate Gap report recommends that federal and state legislation force industries to purchase permits to emit greenhouse gases through an auction system, or a fee system. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger last week proffered the same advice to a state working committee that is designing the system.

 According to the researchers, offering fewer free pollution permits to oil facilities, which are mostly located in minority and low-income neighborhoods, would be particularly effective in cleaning up unhealthful air that is linked to heart disease and respiratory illness.

-- Margot Roosevelt

Photo: Smoke billows during a malfunction at a Wilmington, CA refinery. Credit: Richard Hartog /Los Angeles Times.

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